Australia Vanuatu (100 mi) 2015 d: Martin Butler and Bentley Dean
Rather elementary ethnographical filmmaking, where good intentions unfortunately do not produce great art. What might have made a terrific documentary is instead converted into a fictional film by a couple of documentary filmmakers with rather pedestrian results. While the film takes place in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, a volcanic archipelago of islands located about a thousand miles northeast of Australia, the cast is comprised entirely from indigenous members of the local Yakel tribe, where the story is told in mythical status, though it’s based on actual events. The film perpetuates the same Western stereotypes since the era of King Kong (1933) by treating indigenous nations like some exotic allure, where there’s little attempt to go into complex detail, or provide anything resembling a character study, instead the film provides a threadbare sketch of indigenous life on the island, where we observe fairly predictable social customs in an otherworldly locale. Unlike Warwick Thornton’s 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #8 Samson and Delilah, which actually gets under the skin of indigenous people, this is all surface textures, where it’s clear the filmmakers don’t have the requisite skills to make a more challenging film. While the filmmakers apparently spent seven months with the Yakel tribe, there’s little recognition for their rhythm of life or observing their customary rituals, for instance learning how they hunt and produce food, build their homes, heal their sick, pray to spiritual deities, designing something other than a mythological fable might have felt more authentic and sincere, as living in the tropical forests and the element of survival would become paramount, where the audience could develop an invested interest. Here there’s a huge gulf between the audience and the subject matter, with little bridging the gap.
The dark-skinned villagers from the island of Tanna live without electricity, wearing grass skirts, collecting water from nearby streams, finding food and making their homes from whatever they find in the forest, where they practice ancient customs known as Kastom. Their hierarchy includes an elderly chief and a medicine man, with men doing the hunting and women doing the washing and making what little clothes they use, where they practice arranged marriages with outside tribes in order to avoid tribal wars. Right away we sense some friction, as there is an existing romance secretly happening within the same tribe between Wawa (Marie Wawa) and Dain (Mungau Dain), the grandson of the tribe’s chief. Apparently one of them left the village for awhile, and what was once childhood friendship blossomed into something more, where most of this is seen through the eyes of a rebellious young child, Selin (Marceline Rofit), Wawa’s younger sister who has a habit of listening to no one and simply doing as she pleases. When it’s discovered that she routinely travels into the territory of a neighboring tribe known as the Imedin, she is chastised and warned of dire consequences, as she could be killed. Undaunted by the warnings, she continues to go where she pleases, so her grandfather (Albi Nangia), an elder shaman, decides a spiritual lesson is in order, walking the child to the rim of an active island volcano, known as Yahul, the spirit mother of their tribe, where it is revealed to be a wrathful and protective force, seen gurgling in red-hot embers, continually blowing off steam. Selim feels the power of Yahul for the first time as they sit on the rim edge, but they are interrupted by members of the Imedin tribe who horrifically beat her grandfather, believing he has used his powers as a medicine man to hex their land, where Selim escapes and runs all the way back home crying for help. This incident causes villagers to panic, claiming they are losing their people, as apparently Dain lost his mother and father to the Imedin.
This ruckus creates a ceremonial meeting between tribal chiefs (playing themselves), Yakel Chief Charlie Kahla and Imedin Chief Mikum Tainakou, in an attempt to lower the levels of hostility, “to bury the club,” where it is decreed that violence will subsist when an Imedin warrior is allowed to marry Wawa. She fears a fate with another tribe and is instead in love with Dain, but their romance is forbidden, so they run away into the heart of the forest and try to survive on their own, but they are continually viewed as trespassers on someone else’s land. Nonetheless, they lead an idyllic existence on the ocean shores, taking shelter in the tropical cover, where they manage to survive on their own in the lush foliage and hidden streams, choosing not to join the wayward Christian settlement that welcomes them with open arms, as both find them too peculiar, preferring to live on their own. But the Imedin are incensed that Wawa has refused, sending out a team of warriors to find her and bring her back, plotting to kill Dain on sight. The Yakel send out their own warriors in hopes of finding them first, while Selin, the little rabble rouser, runs off to help as well. This choreography of mixed messages and confusion only serves to prolong the inevitable, as the island is too small to avoid detection. It all comes to a head on the rim of the volcano, with spewing lava and gaseous fumes as a backdrop, as the young couple are found dead in each other’s arms, having eaten poisonous mushrooms. An African folk tale merging into the forbidden lovers Romeo and Juliet, it’s left for Chief Charlie to meditate on the outcome, producing a song of sorrow that he sings to his tribe announcing no more arranged marriages, that women are now free to pick who they choose in marriage. Supposedly based on an actual event, there is no mention of why a policy of arranged marriage existed in the first place, which guaranteed marrying outside one’s tribe, as that likely prevented incest from occurring throughout the generations. In small tribes, more likely than not, nearly everyone is related, where marrying within the tribe could have severe medical consequences. The film omits this likelihood in its zealous urge to portray a mythical romance where love is stronger than tradition, but tradition is what allowed them to survive as a tribe all these years. That notwithstanding, the film is Australia’s nomination for Best Foreign Film and has made the next-to-last cut into the final nine films, eventually whittled down to only five.